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Museums reveal truth of men, nudity and art

By Catherine Hickley
Bloomberg News

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VIENNA Naked men are much more interesting than naked women.

That might sound subjective, and it is, partly. Yet I have some good arguments to back it up.

Austria is the place to go to ogle hundreds of men with no clothes on. The Leopold Museum in Vienna and the Lentos Museum in Linz – independently and, apparently, coincidentally – are exposing the male sex in big exhibitions. Both report a rise in the proportion of female visitors.

“It’s noticeable that there are a lot of young women between 25 and 30, sometimes in groups,” said Tobias Natter, director of the Leopold Museum. Many men, he said, seem ill at ease.

“Men tend to compare themselves with the artworks,” he said. “Women are much more relaxed.”

Naked men make a refreshing change. After all, female nudes have been a fixture of the art canon for centuries. Most of the artists who produced them, the collectors who bought them and the curators who displayed them were men. The focus is on their erotic value.

Male nudes carry many varied messages and tell us much more about the human condition.

Stripped down to their birthday suits, men can still be heroic, like Michelangelo’s sculpture of David. More recently, the French artist duo Pierre and Gilles portrayed three soccer players in full frontal, wearing nothing but their socks and sport shoes in “Vive la France.”

Male nudes can also be vulnerable or tragic, like many historical images of Christ on the cross. The Austrian painter Albin Egger Lienz’s 1926 “Pieta” shows a pale corpse on a mortuary slab, his body foreshortened by the perspective.

Nude self-portraits can be brutal in their desire to expose. Albrecht Duerer turned his scientific attention to detail to his own body in an unsparing, astonishing “Self- Portrait as Nude” (1503-1505). He was recovering from a serious illness and the skin hangs loose from his flesh.

It took 500 years and Sigmund Freud for such rigorous self- examination to resurface. The most heartbreaking of the Leopold nude self-portraits is by the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl, who committed suicide at 28 after a failed love affair with the wife of the composer Arnold Schoenberg.

The furrowed, intense face is strangely lit, the eyes stare with a blank intensity. Painted in 1908 just weeks before his death, it is the incarnation of despair and isolation.

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Video offers new potential for self-exposure, and the Linz show has a courageous offering from Peter Land, a Danish artist. Land filmed himself in a shabby modern apartment, performing a striptease while dancing exceptionally badly to banal pop music.

Overweight and clumsy, he nearly falls over at one point after getting a foot caught in his pant-leg. Yet he still manages to be endearing, while making a point about the modern fixation with sanitized, bland physical perfection. The catalogue says Land had to get drunk to make the film. It’s worth the hangover.

Elke Silvia Krystufek’s “Hescape” made me think there should be more male nudes by women. Her man has a mane of dark hair and is lost in thought. It’s clear from her portrayal that she finds him attractive, yet it’s empathetic as well as erotic.

I can’t think of a single equivalent example of a female nude that makes me think I’d like to know the person. This is no objectification: Krystufek’s model retains his dignity and personality, even without his clothes.

Women, excluded from nude drawing classes at art schools until the 20th century, have a lot of catching up to do. These new male nudes mark the start of a genre that could run for a few centuries more, if the male fascination with naked women is a guide.

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